Keep Your Eye on the Prize: Top Ten Things Every Parent Needs to Know When Their Step Children Are Going to College

I have two step children and one biological child. I need to say that up front because until you experience having a blended family, I don’t want anyone telling me how I “should” be doing things differently. As Elvis used to say, “Walk a mile in my blue suede shoes.” I want to know how you survived having step children.

I love my step children. I know one of them loves me and I suspect the other one likes me a few days out of the year, but I will settle out of court for that!

I could write a whole book—and I may one day—about blended families. More specifically, there are unique aspects about sending a step child to college.

College is often a difficult time for blended families. The most important thing to remember is that ultimately you want both your children and your step children to be financially and emotionally independent of you and your spouse, and to be able to do that they need a good education.

If we can keep our eye on the end product—the prize—some of the issues that arise can be minimized.

These are the ten things I learned.

  1. “You are going to spend HOW MUCH of OUR money on Susie?” Whether you like it or not, your spouse emotionally needs to help their child with the costs of college. It is the right thing to do. Show your love for your spouse by acknowledging that simple fact to your spouse. For your step child to be financially independent one day, it is important that they are not burdened with too many student loans (if you can help it). Short term sacrifice may be painful, but long term gain will be worth it.
  2. Go Between the Hedges. Whenever possible, encourage your spouse to go visit their child at college by themselves. It’s a great time for you to do something you enjoy and it will be a special one-on-one parent to adult child bonding time for them. Think of this as a gift you give them both… and a gift to yourself.
  3. Connect the dots. Try to find a common link with your step child. It can be something silly you both enjoy like a TV show or decoupage. College is a good time to start seeing your step child in a new light even if the teenage years have been trying.
  4. #How’s college life? You may want to talk over the phone, but be willing to text your step child, or maybe if you’re lucky he/she will “friend” you. A simple picture or a funny family story will bond you forever. Everyone can use a word of encouragement away from home.
  5. Ho! Ho! Hum! Not so merry! Holidays are an especially stressful time for blended families, especially during the college years when time home gets fewer and farther between. Be a hero and be mindful and flexible. Once I realized that Christmas is not just about having everyone at our home for our special dinner at noon on December 25th it became easier. Celebrate Christmas any time in December. What is important is having everyone together; and not necessarily at a certain day or time. And this is great training for later when they have to divide their time among in-laws.
  6. Sometimes you’re the Good Fairy, and sometimes you’re the Evil Stepmother. If your step child does not like you and/or vice versa, accept that. Being kind and courteous is what you can do. Use your soft words when they are home or when issues arise. If you can’t, leave the room and go do something fun instead!
  7. Restart your engines! High school is a great time to reboot your relationship with your step child.  Children are getting older and hopefully more mature. (Yes, eventually children do mature!) Let the past be the past and start your relationship over every time you see them.
  8. You are not my mother! No, you are not their biological parent, but the day you said “I Do” to their parent you adopted them, just as if you had gone to an orphanage and brought them home from Day One. Do your best to find joy in every human being, even those being stinky to you or your spouse. You set the example of the person you hope they will become. You will never be their birth parent but you can become a trusted advisor, confidant and even friend as the years go by.
  9. Accept the First Spouse. You might not be ready to have them to Thanksgiving dinner (or you might!) but with limited time for all of you to visit with the college student, consider including the ex in some family outings. You all will benefit, and one day you will be sharing grandchildren, so you might as well start now.
  10. “I love you. Ergo I love your children…even when I don’t like them.” Regardless of how you feel about your step child, remember you do things for them because of your love for their parent. Parents will always love the children they birthed and feel responsible for them. They just will.  Accept the fact that you can’t—and should not—change that. Love does not make a spouse choose a side.

So, that’s it. Take my words of wisdom learned from my own hard experience. Sometimes just knowing that everyone struggles with blended families will help you feel you are not alone.

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